Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 12

Danger Signals: the Challenge

These two years 1893–4 saw Oscar Wilde at the very zenith of success. Thackeray, who always felt himself a monetary failure in comparison with Dickens, calls success “one of the greatest of a great man’s qualities,” and Oscar was not successful merely, he was triumphant. Not Sheridan the day after his marriage, not Byron when he awoke to find himself famous, ever reached such a pinnacle. His plays were bringing in so much that he could spend money like water; he had won every sort of popularity; the gross applause of the many, and the finer incense of the few who constitute the jury of Fame; his personal popularity too was extraordinary; thousands admired him, many liked him; he seemed to have everything that heart could desire and perfect health to boot. Even his home life was without a cloud. Two stories which he told at this time paint him. One was about his two boys, Vyvyan and Cyril.

“Children are sometimes interesting,” he began. “The other night I was reading when my wife came and asked me to go upstairs and reprove the elder boy: Cyril, it appeared, would not say his prayers. He had quarrelled with Vyvyan, and beaten him, and when he was shaken and told he must say his prayers, he would not kneel down, or ask God to make him a good boy. Of course I had to go upstairs and see to it. I took the chubby little fellow on my knee, and told him in a grave way that he had been very naughty; naughty to hit his younger brother, and naughty because he had given his mother pain. He must kneel down at once, and ask God to forgive him and make him a good boy.

“‘I was not naughty,’ he pouted, ‘it was Vyvyan; he was naughty.’

“I explained to him that his temper was naughty, and that he must do as he was told. With a little sigh he slipped off my knee, and knelt down and put his little hands together, as he had been taught, and began ‘Our Father.’ When he had finished the ‘Lord’s Prayer,’ he looked up at me and said gravely, ‘Now I’ll pray to myself.’

“He closed his eyes and his lips moved. When he had finished I took him in my arms again and kissed him. ‘That’s right,’ I said.

“‘You said you were sorry,’ questioned his mother, leaning over him, ‘and asked God to make you a good boy?’

“‘Yes, mother,’ he nodded, ‘I said I was sorry and asked God to make Vyvyan a good boy.’

“I had to leave the room, Frank, or he would have seen me smiling. Wasn’t it delightful of him! We are all willing to ask God to make others good.”

This story shows the lovable side of him. There was another side not so amiable. In April, 1893, “A Woman of No Importance” was produced by Herbert Beerbohm Tree at The Haymarket and ran till the end of the season, August 16th, surviving even the festival of St. Grouse. The astonishing success of this second play confirmed Oscar Wilde’s popularity, gave him money to spend and increased his self-confidence. In the summer he took a house up the river at Goring, and went there to live with Lord Alfred Douglas. Weird stories came to us in London about their life together. Some time in September, I think it was, I asked him what was the truth underlying these reports.

“Scandals and slanders, Frank, have no relation to truth,” he replied.

“I wonder if that’s true,” I said, “slander often has some substratum of truth; it resembles the truth like a gigantic shadow; there is a likeness at least in outline.”

“That would be true,” he retorted, “if the canvas, so to speak, on which the shadows fall were even and true; but it is not. Scandals and slander are related to the hatred of the people who invent them and are not in any shadowy sense even, effigies or images of the person attacked.”

“Much smoke, then,” I queried, “and no fire?”

“Only little fires,” he rejoined, “show much smoke. The foundation for what you heard is both small and harmless. The summer was very warm and beautiful, as you know, and I was up at Goring with Bosie. Often in the middle of the day we were too hot to go on the river. One afternoon it was sultry-close, and Bosie proposed that I should turn the hose pipe on him. He went in and threw his things off and so did I. A few minutes later I was seated in a chair with a bath towel round me and Bosie was lying on the grass about ten yards away, when the vicar came to pay us a call. The servant told him that we were in the garden, and he came and found us there. Frank, you have no idea the sort of face he pulled. What could I say?”

“‘I am the vicar of the parish,’ he bowed pompously.

“‘I’m delighted to see you,’ I said, getting up and draping myself carefully, ‘you have come just in time to enjoy a perfectly Greek scene. I regret that I am scarcely fit to receive you, and Bosie there’— and I pointed to Bosie lying on the grass. The vicar turned his head and saw Bosie’s white limbs; the sight was too much for him; he got very red, gave a gasp and fled from the place.

“I simply sat down in my chair and shrieked with laughter. How he may have described the scene, what explanation he gave of it, what vile gloss he may have invented, I don’t know and I don’t care. I have no doubt he wagged his head and pursed his lips and looked unutterable things. But really it takes a saint to suffer such fools gladly.”

I could not help smiling when I thought of the vicar’s face, but Oscar’s tone was not pleasant.

The change in him had gone further than I had feared. He was now utterly contemptuous of criticism and would listen to no counsel. He was gross, too, the rich food and wine seemed to ooze out of him and his manner was defiant, hard. He was like some great pagan determined to live his own life to the very fullest, careless of what others might say or think or do. Even the stories which he wrote about this time show the worst side of his paganism:

“When Jesus was minded to return to Nazareth, Nazareth was so changed that He no longer recognised His own city. The Nazareth where he had lived was full of lamentations and tears; this city was filled with outbursts of laughter and song. . . .

“Christ went out of the house and, behold, in the street he saw a woman whose face and raiment were painted and whose feet were shod with pearls, and behind her walked a man who wore a cloak of two colours, and whose eyes were bright with lust. And Christ went up to the man and laid His hand on his shoulder, and said to him, ‘Tell me, why art thou following this woman, and why dost thou look at her in such wise?’ The man turned round, recognised Him and said, ‘I was blind; Thou didst heal me; what else should I do with my sight?’”

The same note is played on in two or three more incidents, but the one I have given is the best, and should have been allowed to stand alone. It has been called blasphemous; it is not intentionally blasphemous; as I have said, Oscar always put himself quite naïvely in the place of any historical character.

The disdain of public opinion which Oscar now showed not only in his writings, but in his answers to criticism, quickly turned the public dislike into aggressive hatred. In 1894 a book appeared, “The Green Carnation,” which was a sort of photograph of Oscar as a talker and a caricature of his thought. The gossipy story had a surprising success, altogether beyond its merits, which simply testified to the intense interest the suspicion of extraordinary viciousness has for common minds. Oscar’s genius was not given in the book at all, but his humour was indicated and a malevolent doubt of his morality insisted upon again and again. Rumour had it that the book was true in every particular, that Mr. Hichens had taken down Oscar’s talks evening after evening and simply reproduced them. I asked Oscar if this was true.

“True enough, Frank,” he replied with a certain contempt which was foreign to him. “Hichens got to know Bosie Douglas in Egypt. They went up the Nile together, I believe with ‘Dodo’ Benson. Naturally Bosie talked a great deal about me and Hichens wanted to know me. When they returned to town, I thought him rather pleasant, and saw a good deal of him. I had no idea that he was going to play reporter; it seems to me a breach of confidence — ignoble.”

“It is not a picture of you,” I said, “but there is a certain likeness.”

“A photograph is always like and unlike, Frank,” he replied; “the sun too, when used mechanically, is merely a reporter, and traduces instead of reproducing you.”

“The Green Carnation” ruined Oscar Wilde’s character with the general public. On all sides the book was referred to as confirming the worst suspicions: the cloud which hung over him grew continually darker.

During the summer of 1894 he wrote the “Ideal Husband,” which was the outcome of a story I had told him. I had heard it from an American I had met in Cairo, a Mr. Cope Whitehouse. He told me that Disraeli had made money by entrusting the Rothschilds with the purchase of the Suez Canal shares. It seemed to me strange that this statement, if true, had never been set forth authoritatively; but the story was peculiarly modern, and had possibilities in it. Oscar admitted afterwards that he had taken the idea and used it in “An Ideal Husband.”

It was in this summer also that he wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest,” his finest play. He went to the seaside and completed it, he said, in three weeks, and, when I spoke of the delight he must feel at having two plays performed in London at the same time, he said:

“Next year, Frank, I may have four or five; I could write one every two months with the greatest ease. It all depends on money. If I need money I shall write half a dozen plays next year.”

His words reminded me of what Goethe had said about himself: in each of the ten years he spent on his “Theory of Light” he could have written a couple of plays as good as his best. The land of Might-have-been is peopled with these gorgeous shadow-shapes.

Oscar had already found his public, a public capable of appreciating the very best he could do. As soon as “The Importance of Being Earnest” was produced it had an extraordinary success, and success of the best sort. Even journalist critics had begun to cease exhibiting their own limitations in foolish fault-finding, and now imitated their betters, parroting phrases of extravagant laudation.

Oscar took the praise as he had taken the scandal and slander, with complacent superiority. He had changed greatly and for the worse: he was growing coarser and harder every year. All his friends noticed this. Even M. André Gide, who was a great admirer and wrote, shortly after his death, the best account of him that appeared, was compelled to deplore his deterioration. He says:

“One felt that there was less tenderness in his looks, that there was something harsh in his laughter, and a wild madness in his joy. He seemed at the same time to be sure of pleasing, and less ambitious to succeed therein. He had grown reckless, hardened and conceited. Strangely enough he no longer spoke in fables. . . . ”

His brother Willie made a similar complaint to Sir Edward Sullivan. Sir Edward writes:

“William Wilde told me, when Oscar was in prison, that the only trouble between him and his brother was caused by Oscar’s inordinate vanity in the period before his conviction. ‘He had surrounded himself,’ William said, ‘with a gang of parasites who praised him all day long, and to whom he used to give his cigarette-cases, breast pins, etc., in return for their sickening flattery. No one, not even I, his brother, dared offer any criticism on his works without offending him.’”

If proof were needed both of his reckless contempt for public opinion and the malignancy with which he was misjudged, it could be found in an incident which took place towards the end of 1894. A journal entitled The Chameleon was produced by some Oxford undergraduates. Oscar wrote for it a handful of sayings which he called “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young.” His epigrams were harmless enough; but in the same number there appeared a story entitled “The Priest and the Acolyte” which could hardly be defended. The mere fact that his work was printed in the same journal called forth a storm of condemnation though he had never seen the story before it was published nor had he anything to do with its insertion.

Nemesis was following hard after him. Late in this year he spoke to me of his own accord about Lord Queensberry. He wanted my advice:

“Lord Queensberry is annoying me,” he said; “I did my best to reconcile him and Bosie. One day at the Café Royal, while Bosie and I were lunching there, Queensberry came in and I made Bosie go over and fetch his father and bring him to lunch with us. He was half friendly with me till quite recently; though he wrote a shameful letter to Bosie about us. What am I to do?”

I asked him what Lord Queensberry objected to.

“He objects to my friendship with Bosie.”

“Then why not cease to see Bosie?” I asked.

“It is impossible, Frank, and ridiculous; why should I give up my friends for Queensberry?”

“I should like to see Queensberry’s letter,” I said. “Is it possible?”

“I’ll bring it to you, Frank, but there’s nothing in it.” A day or two later he showed me the letter, and after I had read it he produced a copy of the telegram which Lord Alfred Douglas had sent to his father in reply. Here they both are; they speak for themselves loudly enough:

ALFRED —

It is extremely painful for me to have to write to you in the strain I must; but please understand that I decline to receive any answers from you in writing in return. After your recent hysterical impertinent ones I refuse to be annoyed with such, and I decline to read any more letters. If you have anything to say do come here and say it in person. Firstly, am I to understand that, having left Oxford as you did, with discredit to yourself, the reasons of which were fully explained to me by your tutor, you now intend to loaf and loll about and do nothing? All the time you were wasting at Oxford I was put off with an assurance that you were eventually to go into the Civil Service or to the Foreign Office, and then I was put off with an assurance that you were going to the Bar. It appears to me that you intend to do nothing. I utterly decline, however, to just supply you with sufficient funds to enable you to loaf about. You are preparing a wretched future for yourself, and it would be most cruel and wrong for me to encourage you in this. Secondly, I come to the more painful part of this letter — your intimacy with this man Wilde. It must either cease or I will disown you and stop all money supplies. I am not going to try and analyse this intimacy, and I make no charge; but to my mind to pose as a thing is as bad as to be it. With my own eyes I saw you both in the most loathsome and disgusting relationship as expressed by your manner and expression. Never in my experience have I ever seen such a sight as that in your horrible features. No wonder people are talking as they are. Also I now hear on good authority, but this may be false, that his wife is petitioning to divorce him for sodomy and other crimes. Is this true, or do you not know of it? If I thought the actual thing was true, and it became public property, I should be quite justified in shooting him at sight. These Christian English cowards and men, as they call themselves, want waking up.

Your disgusted so-called father,

QUEENSBERRY.

In reply to this letter Lord Alfred Douglas telegraphed:

“What a funny little man you are! ALFRED DOUGLAS.”

This telegram was excellently calculated to drive Queensberry frantic with rage. There was feminine cunning in its wound to vanity.

A little later Oscar told me that Queensberry accompanied by a friend had called on him.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I said to him, ‘I suppose, Lord Queensberry, you have come to apologise for the libellous letter you wrote about me?’

“‘No,’ he replied, ‘the letter was privileged; it was written to my son.’

“‘How dared you say such a thing about your son and me?’

“‘You were both kicked out of The Savoy Hotel for disgusting conduct,’ he replied.

“‘That’s untrue,’ I said, ‘absolutely untrue.’

“‘You were blackmailed too for a disgusting letter you wrote my son,’ he went on.

“‘I don’t know who has been telling you all these silly stories,’ I replied, ‘but they are untrue and quite ridiculous.’

“He ended up by saying that if he caught me and his son together again he would thrash me.

“‘I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are,’ I retorted, ‘but my rule is to shoot at sight in case of personal violence,’ and with that I told him to leave my house.”

“Of course he defied you?” I questioned.

“He was rude, Frank, and preposterous to the end.”

As Oscar was telling me the story, it seemed to me as if another person were speaking through his mouth. The idea of Oscar “standing up” to Queensberry or “shooting at sight” was too absurd. Who was inspiring him? Alfred Douglas?

“What has happened since?” I enquired.

“Nothing,” he replied, “perhaps he will be quiet now. Bosie has written him a terrible letter; he must see now that, if he goes on, he will only injure his own flesh and blood.”

“That won’t stop him,” I replied, “if I read him aright. But if I could see what Alfred Douglas wrote, I should be better able to judge of the effect it will have on Queensberry.”

A little later I saw the letter: it shows better than words of mine the tempers of the chief actors in this squalid story:

“As you return my letters unopened, I am obliged to write on a postcard. I write to inform you that I treat your absurd threats with absolute indifference. Ever since your exhibition at O.W.‘s house, I have made a point of appearing with him at many public restaurants such as The Berkeley, Willis’s Rooms, the Café Royal, etc., and I shall continue to go to any of these places whenever I choose and with whom I choose. I am of age and my own master. You have disowned me at least a dozen times, and have very meanly deprived me of money. You have therefore no right over me, either legal or moral. If O.W. was to prosecute you in the Central Criminal Court for libel, you would get seven years’ penal servitude for your outrageous libels. Much as I detest you, I am anxious to avoid this for the sake of the family; but if you try to assault me, I shall defend myself with a loaded revolver, which I always carry; and if I shoot you or if he shoots you, we shall be completely justified, as we shall be acting in self-defence against a violent and dangerous rough, and I think if you were dead many people would not miss you. — A.D.”

This letter of the son seemed to me appalling. My guess was right; it was he who was speaking through Oscar; the threat of shooting at sight came from him. I did not then understand all the circumstances; I had not met Lady Queensberry. I could not have imagined how she had suffered at the hands of her husband — a charming, cultivated woman, with exquisite taste in literature and art; a woman of the most delicate, aspen-like sensibilities and noble generosities, coupled with that violent, coarse animal with the hot eyes and combative nature. Her married life had been a martyrdom. Naturally the children had all taken her side in the quarrel, and Lord Alfred Douglas, her especial favourite, had practically identified himself with her, which explains to some extent, though nothing can justify, the unnatural animosity of his letter. The letter showed me that the quarrel was far deeper, far bitterer than I had imagined — one of those dreadful family quarrels, where the intimate knowledge each has of the other whips anger to madness. All I could do was to warn Oscar.

“It’s the old, old story,” I said. “You are putting your hand between the bark and the tree, and you will suffer for it.” But he would not or could not see it.

“What is one to do with such a madman?” he asked pitiably.

“Avoid him,” I replied, “as you would avoid a madman, who wanted to fight with you; or conciliate him; there is nothing else to do.”

He would not be warned. A little later the matter came up again. At the first production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” Lord Queensberry appeared at the theatre carrying a large bouquet of turnips and carrots. What the meaning was of those vegetables only the man himself and his like could divine. I asked Oscar about the matter. He seemed annoyed but on the whole triumphant.

“Queensberry,” he said, “had engaged a stall at the St. James’s Theatre, no doubt to kick up a row; but as soon as I heard of it I got Alick (George Alexander) to send him back his money. On the night of the first performance Queensberry appeared carrying a large bundle of carrots. He was refused admittance at the box-office, and when he tried to enter the gallery the police would not let him in. He must be mad, Frank, don’t you think? I am glad he was foiled.”

“He is insanely violent,” I said, “he will keep on attacking you.”

“But what can I do, Frank?”

“Don’t ask for advice you won’t take,” I replied. “There’s a French proverb I’ve always liked: ‘In love and war don’t seek counsel.’ But for God’s sake, don’t drift. Stop while you can.”

But Oscar would have had to take a resolution and act in order to stop, and he was incapable of such energy. The wild horses of Fate had run away with the light chariot of his fortune, and what the end would be no one could foresee. It came with appalling suddenness.

One evening, in February, ‘95, I heard that the Marquis of Queensberry had left an insulting card for Oscar at the Albemarle Club. My informant added gleefully that now Oscar would have to face the music and we’d all see what was in him. There was no malice in this, just an Englishman’s pleasure in a desperate fight, and curiosity as to the issue.

A little later I received a letter from Oscar, asking me if he could call on me that afternoon. I stayed in, and about four o’clock he came to see me.

At first he used the old imperious mask, which he had lately accustomed himself to wear.

“I am bringing an action against Queensberry, Frank,” he began gravely, “for criminal libel. He is a mere wild beast. My solicitors tell me that I am certain to win. But they say some of the things I have written will be brought up against me in court. Now you know all I have written. Would you in your position as editor of The Fortnightly come and give evidence for me, testify for instance that ‘Dorian Gray’ is not immoral?”

“Yes,” I replied at once, “I should be perfectly willing, and I could say more than that; I could say that you are one of the very few men I have ever known whose talk and whose writings were vowed away from grossness of any sort.”

“Oh! Frank, would you? It would be so kind of you,” he cried out. “My solicitors said I ought to ask you, but they were afraid you would not like to come: your evidence will win the case. It is good of you.” His whole face was shaken; he turned away to hide the tears.

“Anything I can do, Oscar,” I said, “I shall do with pleasure, and, as you know, to the uttermost; but I want you to consider the matter carefully. An English court of law gives me no assurance of a fair trial or rather I am certain that in matters of art or morality an English court is about the worst tribunal in the civilised world.”

He shook his head impatiently.

“I cannot help it, I cannot alter it,” he said.

“You must listen to me,” I insisted. “You remember the Whistler and Ruskin action. You know that Whistler ought to have won. You know that Ruskin was shamelessly in fault; but the British jury and the so-called British artists treated Whistler and his superb work with contempt. Take a different case altogether, the Belt case, where all the Academicians went into the witness box, and asserted honestly enough that Belt was an impostor, yet the jury gave him a verdict of £5,000, though a year later he was sent to penal servitude for the very frauds which the jury in the first trial had declared by their verdict he had not committed. An English law court is all very well for two average men, who are fighting an ordinary business dispute. That’s what it’s made for, but to judge a Whistler or the ability or the immorality of an artist is to ask the court to do what it is wholly unfit to do. There is not a judge on the bench whose opinion on such a matter is worth a moment’s consideration, and the jury are a thousand years behind the judge.”

“That may be true, Frank; but I cannot help it.”

“Don’t forget,” I persisted, “all British prejudices will be against you. Here is a father, the fools will say, trying to protect his young son. If he has made a mistake, it is only through excess of laudable zeal; you would have to prove yourself a religious maniac in order to have any chance against him in England.”

“How terrible you are, Frank. You know it is Bosie Douglas who wants me to fight, and my solicitors tell me I shall win.”

“Solicitors live on quarrels. Of course they want a case that will bring hundreds if not thousands of pounds into their pockets. Besides they like the fight. They will have all the kudos of it and the fun, and you will pay the piper. For God’s sake don’t be led into it: that way madness lies.”

“But, Frank,” he objected weakly, “how can I sit down under such an insult. I must do something.”

“That’s another story,” I replied. “Let us by all means weigh what is to be done. But let us begin by putting the law-courts out of the question. Don’t forget that you are challenged to mortal combat. Let us consider how the challenge should be met, but we won’t fight under Queensberry rules because Queensberry happens to be the aggressor. Don’t forget that if you lose and Queensberry goes free, everyone will hold that you have been guilty of nameless vice. Put the law courts out of your head. Whatever else you do, you must not bring an action for criminal libel against Queensberry. You are sure to lose it; you haven’t a dog’s chance, and the English despise the beaten — væ victis! Don’t commit suicide.”

Nothing was determined when the time came to part.

This conversation took place, I believe, on the Friday or Saturday. I spent the whole of Sunday trying to find out what was known about Oscar Wilde and what would be brought up against him. I wanted to know too how he was regarded in an ordinary middle-class English home.

My investigations had appalling results. Everyone assumed that Oscar Wilde was guilty of the worst that had ever been alleged against him; the very people who received him in their houses condemned him pitilessly and, as I approached the fountain-head of information, the charges became more and more definite; to my horror, in the Public Prosecutor’s office, his guilt was said to be known and classified.

All “people of importance” agreed that he would lose his case against Queensberry; “no English jury would give Oscar Wilde a verdict against anyone,” was the expert opinion.

“How unjust!” I cried.

A careless shrug was the only reply.

I returned home from my enquiries late on Sunday afternoon, and in a few minutes Oscar called by appointment. I told him I was more convinced than ever that he must not go on with the prosecution; he would be certain to lose. Without beating about the bush I declared that he had no earthly chance.

“There are letters,” I said, “which are infinitely worse than your published writings, which will be put in evidence against you.”

“What letters do you mean, Frank?” he questioned. “The Wood letters to Lord Alfred Douglas I told you about? I can explain all of them.”

“You paid blackmail to Wood for letters you had written to Douglas,” I replied, “and you will not be able to explain that fact to the satisfaction of a jury. I am told it is possible that witnesses will be called against you. Take it from me, Oscar, you have not a ghost of a chance.”

“Tell me what you mean, Frank, for God’s sake,” he cried.

“I can tell you in a word,” I replied; “you will lose your case. I have promised not to say more.”

I tried to persuade him by his vanity.

“You must remember,” I said, “that you are a sort of standard bearer for future generations. If you lose you will make it harder for all writers in England; though God knows it is hard enough already; you will put back the hands of the clock for fifty years.”

I seemed almost to have persuaded him. He questioned me:

“What is the alternative, Frank, the wisest thing to do in your opinion? Tell me that.”

“You ought to go abroad,” I replied, “go abroad with your wife, and let Queensberry and his son fight out their own miserable quarrels; they are well-matched.”

“Oh, Frank,” he cried, “how can I do that?”

“Sleep on it,” I replied; “I am going to, and we can talk it all over in a day or two.”

“But I must know,” he said wistfully, “tomorrow morning, Frank.”

“Bernard Shaw is lunching with me tomorrow,” I replied, “at the Café Royal.”

He made an impatient movement of his head.

“He usually goes early,” I went on, “and if you like to come after three o’clock we can have a talk and consider it all.”

“May I bring Bosie?” he enquired.

“I would rather you did not,” I replied, “but it is for you to do just as you like. I don’t mind saying what I have to say, before anyone,” and on that we parted.

Somehow or other next day at lunch both Shaw and I got interested in our talk, and we were both at the table when Oscar came in. I introduced them, but they had met before. Shaw stood up and proposed to go at once, but Oscar with his usual courtesy assured him that he would be glad if he stayed.

“Then, Oscar,” I said, “perhaps you won’t mind Shaw hearing what I advise?”

“No, Frank, I don’t mind,” he sighed with a pitiful air of depression.

I am not certain and my notes do not tell me whether Bosie Douglas came in with Oscar or a little later, but he heard the greater part of our talk. I put the matter simply.

“First of all,” I said, “we start with the certainty that you are going to lose the case against Queensberry. You must give it up, drop it at once; but you cannot drop it and stay in England. Queensberry would probably attack you again and again. I know him well; he is half a savage and regards pity as a weakness; he has absolutely no consideration for others.

“You should go abroad, and, as ace of trumps, you should take your wife with you. Now for the excuse: I would sit down and write such a letter as you alone can write to The Times. You should set forth how you have been insulted by the Marquis of Queensberry, and how you went naturally to the Courts for a remedy, but you found out very soon that this was a mistake. No jury would give a verdict against a father, however mistaken he might be. The only thing for you to do therefore is to go abroad, and leave the whole ring, with its gloves and ropes, its sponges and pails, to Lord Queensberry. You are a maker of beautiful things, you should say, and not a fighter. Whereas the Marquis of Queensberry takes joy only in fighting. You refuse to fight with a father under these circumstances.”

Oscar seemed to be inclined to do as I proposed. I appealed to Shaw, and Shaw said he thought I was right; the case would very likely go against Oscar, a jury would hardly give a verdict against a father trying to protect his son. Oscar seemed much moved. I think it was about this time that Bosie Douglas came in. At Oscar’s request, I repeated my argument and to my astonishment Douglas got up at once, and cried with his little white, venomous, distorted face:

“Such advice shows you are no friend of Oscar’s.”

“What do you mean?” I asked in wonderment; but he turned and left the room on the spot. To my astonishment Oscar also got up.

“It is not friendly of you, Frank,” he said weakly. “It really is not friendly.”

I stared at him: he was parrotting Douglas’ idiotic words.

“Don’t be absurd,” I said; but he repeated:

“No, Frank, it is not friendly,” and went to the door and disappeared.

Like a flash I saw part at least of the truth. It was not Oscar who had ever misled Douglas, but Lord Alfred Douglas who was driving Oscar whither he would.

I turned to Shaw.

“Did I say anything in the heat of argument that could have offended Oscar or Douglas?”

“Nothing,” said Shaw, “not a word: you have nothing to reproach yourself with.”11

Left to myself I was at a loss to imagine what Lord Alfred Douglas proposed to himself by hounding Oscar on to attack his father. I was still more surprised by his white, bitter face. I could not get rid of the impression it left on me. While groping among these reflections I was suddenly struck by a sort of likeness, a similarity of expression and of temper between Lord Alfred Douglas and his unhappy father. I could not get it out of my head — that little face blanched with rage and the wild, hating eyes; the shrill voice, too, was Queensberry’s.

11 I am very glad that Bernard Shaw has lately put in print his memory of this conversation. The above account was printed, though not published, in 1911, and in 1914 Shaw published his recollection of what took place at this consultation. Readers may judge from the comparison how far my general story is worthy of credence. In the Introduction to his playlet, “The Dark Lady of the Sonnets,” Shaw writes:

“Yet he (Harris) knows the taste and the value of humour. He was one of the few men of letters who really appreciated Oscar Wilde, though he did not rally fiercely to Wilde’s side until the world deserted Oscar in his ruin. I myself was present at a curious meeting between the two when Harris on the eve of the Queensberry trial prophesied to Wilde with miraculous precision exactly what immediately afterwards happened to him and warned him to leave the country. It was the first time within my knowledge that such a forecast proved true. Wilde, though under no illusion as to the folly of the quite unselfish suit-at-law he had been persuaded to begin, nevertheless so miscalculated the force of the social vengeance he was unloosing on himself that he fancied it could be stayed by putting up the editor of The Saturday Review (as Mr. Harris then was) to declare that he considered Dorian Gray a highly moral book, which it certainly is. When Harris foretold him the truth, Wilde denounced him as a faint-hearted friend who was failing him in his hour of need and left the room in anger. Harris’s idiosyncratic power of pity saved him from feeling or showing the smallest resentment; and events presently proved to Wilde how insanely he had been advised in taking the action, and how accurately Harris had gauged the situation.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wilde/oscar/harris/chapter12.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30